Sabine Laruelle bids farewell at height of popularity

  • MR bombshell: Sabine Laruelle has announced she is quitting politics.
  • She will not be running again in May, for fear of getting stuck in a rut.
  • Party members have raised questions about her reasons.

It would be an understatement to say that the news surprised many at Reformist Movement (MR) headquarters even (and especially) at the very highest level. As L’Avenir revealed yesterday, Sabine Laruelle informed her party leader on Monday that she would not be running for re-election in May 2014. She is the minister for the middle class, SMEs, the self-employed and agriculture. Her decision is apparently “final”.

Charles Michel was blind-sided. She had already discussed it with some of her closest allies, but not with her party president. In the “clan war” that divided the MR in 2009 and 2010, Laruelle had supported Didier Reynders ahead of Michel.

It’s a tough blow for the MR. The minister is a veritable vote magnet (32,389 in 2010, the seventh highest penetration rate in French-speaking Belgium). She’s very popular with the middle class and the self-employed (the party’s target voting bloc), and she is highly respected for her work as part of the government. She was supposed to spearhead the MR’s Chamber of representatives list for Namur province.

It also represents a significant setback for the party president himself because, as a parliamentary source explains, “Even more than the federal result, the result in Wallonia will be decisive for the party. Losing a minister that everyone admired for her work on behalf of the self-employed is difficult. While Charles Michel had held on to the Reynders-supporting ministers, a move which had disappointed his followers in the Renaissance group, Sabine Laruelle is now on her way out. This gives the impression of disorganization.”

This kind of decision, leaving the political stage while still riding the waves of popularity, is relatively unusual. This raises the question: why? Numerous theories abound.

The official reason. The majority of MR representatives, be they allies of Laruelle or not, be they Reynders or Michel supporters, believe the reason provided by the minister herself. An example would be the Walloon member of parliament and personal friend Jean-Luc Crucke. “After three terms, she’s done her bit. She’s now keen on trying her hand at other challenges, so as not to get stuck in a rut. Choosing a political career involves a lot of sacrifices. She feels like she’s gone as far as she can go. Politics is no longer an area in which she can flourish.” Others back up this viewpoint. Olivier Chastel, a fellow minister, points out that “she’s always had an independent mind.” Member of parliament Pierre-Yves Jeholet states that she “wanted to change things” rather than work in politics for her whole life. Many, meanwhile, including the party president, who points out her “exceptional qualities”, have praised the “elegance and propriety” of her decision, given that it was made public before and not after the election.

The minority opinion. A political representative close to Laruelle puts forward an alternative theory, however, “For months now, Sabine was no longer feeling like she was properly supported by the part. She experienced some difficult situations and was the victim of serious attempts to destabilize her.” And yet, it seemed as if she was often placed in the limelight. “That was just a massive piece of theater used to pave the way for the next stage. She would no longer have been a minister.”

Had Laruelle fallen from grace? Whichever “clan” they belong to, few conservative-liberals believe this speculation. Many consider that she has in fact “performed flawlessly as a minister” and that she would have been kept on in the event of the MR forming part of the next government. Another party source tells Le Soir, “Within the MR, apart from Reynders, very few people have been ministers for ten years. I’d imagine that it would soon have been time for a change, but Sabine is made for an executive role. She wants to manage, and being a member of parliament isn’t interesting to her.”

Laruelle was certainly nursing political bruises. “She was really affected by the internal problems that ripped the party apart,” explains a pair of parliamentary colleagues. Lastly, her private secretary had to resign recently for his part in the Tecteo affair. This may have led to friction with Charles Michel, according to some observers. Crucke is quick to temper this rumor: “Her private secretary’s resignation was hard for her to take. It floored her, but it is not a motivating factor.” Another source backs Crucke’s view, “It may have caused some tension, but she had already made her decision.”

The fringe views. Other explanations are making the rounds. One, heard on Monday, floated the idea of a dispute with another Namur-based leading light, Willy Borsus. He was keen to stress “Sabine’s remarkable work,” and that “She was unanimously supported”. But another political source noted that “She was parachuted in from a union and Christian environment. Commanding respect from Namur’s conservative-liberals wasn’t always easy. She struggled with Borsus’ authoritarianism.” Another theory flying around is that Didier Reynders no longer supported her as he used to.

It is clear that everyone is looking for answers, but Sabine Laruelle is an unusual politician. She had, after all, refused to put herself forward for the party leadership, despite pressure for her to stand. Her reason: “I’m not made for that.” At this moment she has no other role lined up, but she is said to be thinking of entering the humanitarian field.

MARTINE DUBUISSON

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